March 10, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     The other night a local talk-radio host, usually a 
polite conservative, was discussing whether American 
corporations should be allowed to "outsource" jobs. But 
his good manners deserted him when a caller said, "As the 
nineteenth-century economist Frederic Bastiat said, --"

     The host cut him off right there: "I don't want to 
hear some eighteenth-century [sic] economic theory." He 
immediately went on to the next caller.

     I was shocked. A conservative who'd never heard of 
Bastiat? Didn't even know what century he'd lived in?

     When I was a kid, there were a few books every young 
conservative read. These were little books by Barry 
Goldwater, Ayn Rand, Bill Buckley, Henry Hazlitt, and a 
handful of others. This small library nearly always 
included THE LAW, by Frederic Bastiat.

     I've told this story often, but there are golden 
moments an old man loves to recall. As LaRochefoucauld 
says, "How is it that we can remember the smallest 
details of our experiences, but not how many times we 
have recounted them to others?"

     On a beautiful June day in 1965, when I was 19, I 
was sitting in my ancient Ford at a gas station in 
Michigan, across the street from my old high school. 
While my tank was filling, I was reading THE LAW.

     I came upon a simple point that stunned me. Bastiat 
wrote, "Look at the law, and see whether it does for one 
citizen at the expense of another what it would be a 
crime for the first to do to the other himself." If so, 
the law itself is criminal.

     At that very time, Lyndon Johnson was enacting Great 
Society programs that did just that. All his 
redistribution schemes, many of which are still with us, 
amounted to what Bastiat's little book -- a long 
pamphlet, really -- called "organized plunder." In 
Bastiat's view, government was (or was fast becoming) a 
morbid system whereby "everybody seeks to live at the 
expense of everybody else."

     If Bastiat had written nothing else, THE LAW would 
have been enough. Generations of liberty-loving readers 
have cherished it; yet most people today have never heard 
of it, or of Bastiat.

     Bastiat (1801-1850) was a devout, reflective man who 
served briefly, and probably with mounting horror, in the 
French Assembly. In an age of corrupt democracy, he was a 
scrupulous old-fashioned liberal who believed that the 
state should be confined to very few functions, beyond 
which it became tyrannical. He lived just long enough to 
enunciate a few principles he had distilled, dying before 
age fifty.

     Bastiat can hardly be said to have an "economic 
theory." He merely applied the Golden Rule to politics. 
He insisted that there is no separate morality for the 
government. What is wrong for the rest of us is wrong for 
the state, however the state may try to disguise its 
criminality as benevolence. And if you allow the state to 
rob your neighbors on your behalf, don't kid yourself: 
you're criminal too.

     One might think a truth so simple and unavoidable 
would be compelling in every age. But various ideologies 
-- monarchic, Marxist, Machiavellian, democratic -- 
ingeniously evade it. Men persuade themselves that the 
state is exempt from ordinary moral norms and has a 
special right to coerce, even to make war.

     But the same principle applies. If you have no right 
to take others' wealth, neither you nor a majority like 
you may delegate such a power to the government. If you 
have no right to kill foreigners who have done you no 
harm, you can't delegate the power to do so to the 
government either. You can't "delegate" a right that 
doesn't exist in the first place.

     Numbers can't overrule principles, and complications 
don't change axioms. No human authority can make right 
what is wrong in its essence. But the state tries to make 
us all accomplices in its crimes, and many people accept 
the invitation with gusto, believing they can profit by 
the system of "organized plunder" the way gamblers are 
confident that they can beat the house.

     Some ideas take the world by storm. Bastiat's ideas 
haven't -- not because they are too complex, but because 
they are too obvious. Unable to contradict them, the 
world goes on ignoring them.


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